I had the pleasure recently of catching up with an old friend turned new artist. New in two ways: in that art is a new vocation for her, and that the purpose of her art is a kind of renewal. This year, she has created an exhibition for Hanukkah.
Marie-Aude Tardivo is a Frenchwoman from Cannes who is so steeped in English that she says “pardon my French” when she curses. She had studied Contemporary Russian literature in the U.K, writing a doctoral dissertation on Solzhenitzyn. Her interest in exposing the evils of Communism did not go over well with the leftist French academic elite, however, and she has had to seek other work. A pious Catholic, she found herself working for the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv (where we met), then in Belgium.
On May 31st, 2008, she suffered a terrible car accident while driving with her mother. Both women survived by a thread. A year later, a Ukrainian monk stubbornly insisted to Tardivo – who had never taken brush or pencil in hand, nor met the monk – that she was a painter. Another year later, she took exactly two art classes and began creating beautiful abstract paintings, with poetry to accompany them.
Given her complete lack of prior experience or interest in creating art, “my painting is a message,” Tardivo says. She had survived an accident that seemed sure to destroy her life, and her task now was “to express the victory of life – to awaken the memory of God and Light in people’s souls.” Light is God Himself, as well as the grace He gives us to see one another anew. Each time she paints, Tardivo celebrates the manifestation in Christ of the mystery that fascinated Plato – that the Good, which is light, is both “what gives truth to the things known and the power to know to the knower.”
How does the light of God manifest? Tardivo found a fitting body for the spirit of her work in the history of the Jewish people.
Tardivo’s insight into the mission of the Jewish people has deep roots. When she was a teenager, a priest took her Catholic youth group to Auschwitz. The experience was so powerful that some of the young men could not physically remain on the site; but she stayed, out of a sense of duty towards the deceased souls. She took hours to watch every face portrayed, to look at the mountains of children’s shoes, to smell air which had been full of horror – but also of beautiful stories. Later, the same priest introduced the group to a Polish Holocaust survivor living in their town, Martin Gray.To hear this man tell his story, after having just witnessed the twisted evidence of the war the world waged against him, made the meaning of Auschwitz clear to the young woman. “For evil to fight so harshly against a people – and for this people to survive and tell their story – that tells you something very powerful,” she said. She was reminded of this again when, during his visit to Jerusalem in 2000, Pope John Paul II leaned against the Wailing Wall and prayed for forgiveness for the actions perpetrated against Jews.
“Israel is a beautiful reminder that God saves,” she says – a reminder, indeed, of the victory of Life. She is deeply touched by Jewish spirituality, which she sees as guided by the exhortation to remember, daily, the salvation of God. Hanukkah thus gave the artist a flexible and recognizable symbolic language in which to clothe her constant theme: “Hanukkah is the feast of light that celebrates the salvation of God.”
Israel, to her, had something equally powerful to oppose to the evil. Tardivo’s grandfather, a French officer, was engaged by the UN for years as a military observer at the Lebanese-Palestinian-Israeli border in the 1950s. He was a lover of Israel. Her mother, who grew up traveling back and forth between France and Israel, always spoke to her daughter of Israel as “the great family:” a people that truly and uniquely knows the meaning of brotherhood, of solidarity. In this, too, Tardivo sees Israel as the image of God’s saving love.
Tardivo’s sense that the history of the Jewish people was part of her calling as an artist was further solidified when she visited Ground Zero last year. She was shocked to see it, a “huge empty space” that the world was shamelessly ignoring, going on about its regular business. Something was happening that was invisible; a sign was being overlooked. She wanted to slow down, stop, and see the sign – and here, she felt, “the Jewish people, to whom God has spoken and revealed Himself first, has something to tell. If we are eager to listen to the voice of God, we should be humble and honest enough to consider that the spiritual Israel has a message.”
Her unusual personal calling to create art, and in this instance to devote her art to what she calls spiritual Israel, nevertheless takes place against a background that would inspire those who, like one of Judith Kornblatt’s interviewees in her book Doubly Chosen (see my review here), see Christian attitudes toward the Jewish people as a “litmus test” of the Church’s health. Many of her compatriots, Tardivo notes, are indifferent and ignorant about the fate of the Jews, either in their midst or in Israel – and similarly indifferent about the Church. There are signs, however anecdotal, that the general European apostasy is going hand in hand with a reversal of the historically antagonistic relationship between the French Church and the Jews, for whom the memory of the Dreyfus affair is never too distant. Tardivo’s own family, which transmitted across three generations both its Catholic faith and its love of Israel, is one example. She also notes a growing interest in Jewish-Christian dialogue among young clergy; several priests with whom she is acquainted take regular part in Jewish-Christian gatherings.
Tardivo goes about her work much like Eastern Christian icon painters in her beloved Ukraine. Prior to beginning each painting, she sings the Resurrection troparion: to remind herself of her mission to affirm the Life of God, and to seek guidance. Icons are, of course, themselves a form of abstract art: by contrast with Western religious imagery, their purpose is not to depict realistic images, but to point to holiness and heaven – to bring light out of darkness.
She will continue to see and show the light in all the places it can be found, and inevitably she will leave Hanukkah behind. Her next project may center on the theme of “dhikr,” a Sufi word meaning “the memory of God” – a call to remember the beauty and goodness dwelling within each person (as taught by Sheikh Bentounes in his book Therapy of the Soul). She would like to depict martyrs who have shown forgiveness to their persecutors. She may paint her memories of Ukraine and the glory she saw there, in a place and a people largely unknown by the rest of the world. She is working on exhibits that would bring her most powerful paintings to serve as reminders of God’s love in hospitals (some have already been placed in hospitals and healing centers) and of His peace in embassies and other diplomatic institutions.
But I suspect that Tardivo will keep coming back to her silent dialogue with Israel – a dialogue about light. Though it may have been a one-sided admiration that inspired her Hanukkah exhibit, her desire to hear and spread Israel’s message of salvation is a challenge to Israel – and perhaps a way in which her art can help us understand and live out our own mission.